What is Suspense?

Nick Winchester

A dictionary definition of suspense would indicate that it is a feeling of apprehension about what is yet to happen. To be in a state of suspense is to be uncertain about the future, and have an emotional stake in what will unwind. Screenplay writers and fiction writers commonly use suspense as a plot device, creating a series of cliffhangers that keep people reading the book or watching the film.


Playwright Oscar Wilde once said, "This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last." Indeed, suspense provides the feelings of both tension and anticipation. Suspense in fiction and film is not a new phenomenon. Some classic suspense literature includes Elizabeth Sanxay Holding's "The Blank Wall," which was adapted into the thriller movie "The Deep End." Another classic author of suspense fiction is Raymond Chandler, who thrilled people with novels such as "The Big Sleep" and "Farewell, My Lovely," as well as the screenplay for the film noir classic "Double Indemnity," directed by Billy Wilder.


One significant feature of suspense is that it often involves surprise. Characters may do the unexpected, situations may quickly take a turn for the better or worse, or a plot line may have a clever twist. Creators of suspense must maintain a heightened sense of discomfort or discordance in their stories, and often attempt to end a story unpredictably. Some people confuse suspense with the genre of horror, but suspense can exist in a romance, such as "Room with a View"; a legal battle, such as "Erin Brockovich"; a caper, such as Audrey Hepburn's "Charade"; a thriller, such as Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window"; or a slasher flick, such as "The Shining." The fact is, some horror films are filled with so many sequences of slashing and burning that suspense is not as much of an element as is the grotesque.


People create suspense through many types of vehicles. A title, such as "Murder on the Orient Express," can create suspense. Characters, such as Dr. Hannibal Lecter from Jonathan Demme's "Silence of the Lambs," can inspire suspense. Time restrictions in a title, such as "Gone in 60 Seconds," can be suspenseful. The most typical way to introduce suspense is through a plot line, often reenacting archetypes such as good over evil, a hero saving the day, or the perfect man meeting the perfect woman. Viewpoint is another brilliant device, as in the case of the detective in the "Columbo" series who rarely lets on that he knows something that the other person does not. Author Deidre Savoy points out that there is dark suspense and light suspense, the latter often involving the tantalizing lead-up to a romance.


There is something about suspense that creates a stirring effect amongst its fans. A psychological horror novel, such as Caleb Carr's "Angel of Darkness," may be less gory and rather subtle, allowing the reader's imagination to fill in some of the gory details. Science fiction and medical horror writing and film play on audiences' fears of the unknown. Monster movies and novels, such as Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," create suspense by vividly depicting a world in which human beings have gone wrong. In a similar vein, works about the supernatural and the occult, such as the movie "The Craft," can be both intriguing and scary, because they may imply that there is a darkness within the human soul.

Expert Insight

One of the filmmakers most adept at creating suspense was Alfred Hitchcock. Films such as "Psycho" and "Vertigo" were not out-and-out horror films, but rather slow, unwinding stories about sinister characters in creepy situations. Hitchcock was known as "The Master of Suspense" and achieved dramatic tension not only through story and character, but also with creative use of light and shadow, music, camera shots and timing.